Donald Trump on Wednesday talked out of both sides of his mouth on immigration -- out of one side in Mexico City and the other in Phoenix.
He jetted over the border to make nice with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Then he jetted back home and resumed his scheme for a "deportation task force" to oust millions of undocumented immigrants, predominantly Mexicans.
Mr. Trump seized on his Mexican host's rather surprising invitation, no doubt in the hope that the visit might put some luster on his transparently nonexistent foreign policy, as well as soften his reputation for personal insult.
The Republican presidential nominee temporarily shelved his insistence that our southern neighbor would pay for his much-ballyhooed wall on the U.S-Mexican border.
President Pena Nieto pointedly took the occasion to state flatly that "at the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall." But Mr. Trump said they had discussed the wall but not the payment, which he said "will be for a later date." (After the American election perhaps?)
Concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican president supports and which Mr. Trump previously argued had lost American workers millions of jobs, the candidate now said only that it "must be improved."
Once Mr. Trump was back on his home turf for a campaign event in Arizona, however, the old Donald resurfaced with his bullyboy declarations. "Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone," he exulted, referring to "criminal aliens," as if some magical human vacuum cleaner would scoop them up.
"We will issue detainers for illegal immigrants arrested for any crime whatsoever," he said. He promised to create a "deportation task force" against "the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants" who have "evaded justice."
This commitment, however, is a far cry from his previous blanket plan to deport as many as 11 million undocumented workers and their families.
He also spoke of imposing some sort of "ideological certification" for those seeking entry to the U.S. as refugees.
Mr. Trump's quick dash over the border and back home again was his latest effort to court voters in immigrant and other minority communities who have been conspicuously alienated from his presidential campaign. His recent overtures to African-Americans have been widely criticized by black leaders for his pointed references to high criminality, poor housing and bad schools in black neighborhoods. He has asked them "What have you got to lose?" by turning to him.
Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, heavily supported by minority voters, has called the strategy one of political desperation. She characterized Mr. Trump's Mexico City interlude as "trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again." (Mr. Pena Nieto has said he has also invited Clinton to visit.)
Mr. Trump's quickie trip to the country he has so vocally and repeatedly abused isn't likely to be of much political help to him. Among other things, he once accused Mexico of sending "rapists" across the border and later questioned whether an Indiana-born American judge of Mexican heritage could fairly adjudicate a civil case against the defunct Trump University.
Some 64 years ago, another Republican presidential nominee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former allied commander in World War II, made a surprise pledge to visit war-torn and stalemated South Korea during his campaign. The dramatic promise later was credited with helping him achieve overwhelming victory over Democratic nominee Adlai E. Stevenson.
Mr. Trump's drop-in to Mexico was barely a blip compared to that historic gambit. Mr. Trump will need an infinitely more dramatic caper, foreign or domestic, to counter his negative image as a reckless and inconsequential campaigner whose erratic behavior has stymied his unorthodox drive for national power.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power” (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.